“I will never forget the range of feelings that coursed through my body on October 9, 2012, as I watched a TV news story unfold while I was getting ready for school. A Muslim girl in Pakistan was shot in the face for wanting to go to school. 

I could use my privilege to advocate for women all over the world who could be shot for something as simple as wanting to get an education.

What struck me most was an overwhelming feeling of guilt. Here I was, a 17-year-old high school student preparing for my day in the safe suburbs of Southern California, while 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was being airlifted to a hospital to save her life.

Little did I know that this feeling of guilt would be the catalyst to what I hope will one day be my life’s work. 

The news of Malala’s shooting sparked a realization: This feeling of guilt could be transformed into a feeling of power. I realized that I could use my inherent privilege to advocate for women all over the world — women who could be shot for something as simple as wanting to get an education.

I set my sights on working for the United Nations (UN) as a means to implement change and provide me a platform to advocate for women. 

My quest to work for the UN has always been met with a pat on the back and a wish of good luck, but no one had ever offered me a way to get my foot in the door. 

Then I began my first semester at CSU Channel Islands in the fall of 2017. In Dr. Tim Allison’s course, “Cultural Literacy and Current Events,” I took a survey that asked what our ideal job would be upon graduation. Without hesitation, I confidently wrote down that I wanted to work for the United Nations. 

Later that semester, Dr. Allison told me he was a former delegate to the UN and put me in contact with the right people. Through tremendous effort on his part, and undergoing a series of interviews on my part, I was officially offered an invitation to attend the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the United Nations as a non-governmental organization delegate for the United States in March 2018.

The CSW is held annually at the UN headquarters in New York City. When my plane landed in New York, I felt an immediate rush of adrenaline. I had been working tirelessly for years to get anywhere near the UN, and now I was gearing up to actually walk through the iron gates that enclosed it. 

My first day attending the conference was equally exciting and overwhelming. I walked through the gates and took a moment to take it all in. I saw women from all over the world identifiable by their beautiful clothing. I was introduced to ambassadors and princesses from countries that I had never heard of, and in that moment, I knew that if I wanted to make a change, I was certainly in the right place to do so. Attending the CSW gave me a unique opportunity to hear directly from the very women whose voices had been forced into silence. 

The theme for the 62nd annual CSW was empowerment of rural women. As I sat in each session, I heard from women who had rediscovered their own powerful voices. Some were refugees who fled from brutal violence in desperate hope of finding a safer life.

I watched a talk from Ketty Nivyabandi of Burundi, who used her voice to speak out against a corrupt dictator, resulting in an attack on female protestors. Nivyabandi fled and has since been exiled from her country and threatened with execution if she tries to return. 

Wai Wai Nu from Burma [Myanmar] faced a similar fate. After speaking out against Burma’s corrupt government, Nu was thrown into a political prison where she was tortured for seven years. Upon her release, Nu fled Burma in fear of being executed.

CSU Channel Islands student Kelsey Genesi

Nivyabandi and Nu are just two examples of many women who shared their stories at CSW, all with a similar theme: Women who demanded basic human rights and spoke out against corruption and were met with brutality by forces who wanted to silence them. 

Sitting in the sea of people hearing about these atrocities, I was hit with a wave of helplessness. However, that feeling was quickly pulled back out to sea and replaced with a new wave of determination.

Attending the CSW opened my eyes to how far we have to go until we reach gender equality. However, I know that a new day is on the horizon as long as people like Nivyabandi and Nu continue to blaze a trail for women all over the world to follow. 

I plan on doing my part by continuing to advocate for women stripped of their voices, and pursuing my dream to work for the UN where I can further fight for women all over the world. 
Malala Yousafzai said it best: ‘If one man can destroy everything, then why can’t one girl change it?’”

Photos courtesy of Kelsey Genesi